Dreaming spires: Victorian chimneys

3 01 2013
1. Robert Rawlinson's fantastical array of industrial chimneys as seen in The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

1. Robert Rawlinson’s fantastical array of industrial chimneys, The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

‘A tower is the creation of another century. Without a past it is nothing’ (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 25)

In 1853, The Builder pictured industrial Manchester ‘getting up the steam’ (2) – the city’s skyline filled with an almost impossible number of chimneys belching smoke and so tall that they dwarfed even Manchester’s church spires. Sublime – even Gothic – in their blackness, these chimneys were nevertheless strictly utilitarian in appearance: identical stacks of brick attached to equally stark mill and other factory buildings. Yet, only five years later, in 1858, The Builder pictured a new vision of industrial chimneys as a dreamscape (1). Assembled by the engineer Robert Rawlinson, these fantastical designs were chimneys that mimicked historical precedents, whether medieval Italian campaniles, Moorish minarets or the more recent clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. Rawlinson believed, in common with most Victorian designers, that history gave aesthetic meaning to structural form; according to Rawlinson, instead of ‘chimney’ being a ‘by-word for hideous structures’, it should be in tune with the models of the past that ‘have stood for ages as monuments of beauty.’

2. 'Manchester, getting up the steam', The Builder, 1853.

2. ‘Manchester, getting up the steam’, The Builder, 1853.

Yet, Rawlinson’s designs do more than simply dress up chimneys in attractive disguises; rather, they draw building into a potent kind of dream. As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard has emphasised in The Poetics of Space (1964), towers are more than simply structures; rather, they are primal images of verticality that illustrate the verticality of the human being. So, in our dreams we always go up towers (whereas we always go down into a cellar). Towers are images of ascension, the endless winding steps inside them leading to dreams of flight or transcendence. Chimneys may not in themselves be fertile dream spaces; yet, because they’re designed solely to carry polluting fumes above the city, they are almost pure images of verticality. By cloaking chimneys with images of the past, Rawlinson joins the pure vertical expression of industry with a whole succession of former dreams of ascension. He also humanises the industrial by bringing it within the compass of the verticality of the human being: people may not be able to literally ascend chimneys but, cloaked in the former dream images of bell towers and minarets, they can now do so in their imagination.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870.

There are numerous Victorian chimneys that followed Rawlinson’s example: from those that adorned the extravagant Crossness (1862-65) and Abbey Mills pumping stations (3; 1865-68) in London, to the more diminutive but no less aestheticised chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks in Birmingham (4; c.1870), one of a pair of water towers that were thought to have inspired the title of J. R. R. Tolkein’s second book in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, perhaps nowhere was Rawlinson’s dream more closely realised than in Leeds’s Tower Works (5), where the steel pin manufacturer T. R. Harding brought together fine architecture into the industrial workplace in the form of three extraordinary chimney-towers: the first (right; 1866) based on the 13th-century Lamberti tower in Verona; the second (centre; 1899) inspired by Giotto’s 14th-century campanile for the Duomo in Florence; the third (left) a 1920s re-imagining of one of the numerous medieval defensive towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

This gathering of chimney-towers in Leeds’ Tower Works demonstrates that structures – even those with an essentially utilitarian purpose – can dream. For what else are these chimneys but towers brought into a new constellation of meaning, assembled from the fragments of the past, and born in the imagination? And even today, when our own megalomanic skyscrapers seem to abolish the kind of verticality that chimes with human being, there’s still a sense in which imagination still plays a part in the conception of some of our tall buildings: whether the Candle Tower (6, right; 2009) near the Tower Works (nicknamed the ‘leaning tower of Leeds’), or Manchester’s Beetham Tower (7, right; 2006) – a structure that, despite its sleek modernity, nevertheless still answers the age-old appeal of the tower, as seen in its early Victorian forebear on the Rochdale Canal (7, left).

7. Beetham Tower (2006) next to a early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.

7. Beetham Tower (2006), Manchester, next to an early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.





Cryptic space

17 08 2012

Entrance to the crypt under Canterbury cathedral

‘The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls …walls that have the entire earth behind them’

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Underneath the apse of Canterbury cathedral (and in common with most large Christian churches) is the crypt, the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th century. In an almost exact reversal of the gem-like Gothic space above ground, the crypt is dark and severe. In one corner, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, is an extraordinary testament to the power of cryptic space. Here, the column capitals are carved into a variety of grotesque forms, some devil-like, others more like mutated animals, as if the unconscious mind has here been given free reign; while above are the remains of a fabulous wall painting of Christ in glory, surrounded by beatific saints and angels. It’s as if two contradictory modes of the imagination – the utopian and dystopian – have been allowed to come together in this space, both being freely expressed but confined to the secretive world of the crypt.

Capital, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, Canterbury cathedral crypt

Wall painting in Saint Gabriel’s chapel

The English words Crypt and cryptic come almost uncorrupted from the Latin world crypta meaning concealed or private; and it’s this sense of the word that holds the key to understanding the potential richness of cryptic space. According to Gaston Bachelard, in his famous meditation The Poetics of Space (1958), domestic underground space (the cellar or vault) is first and foremost the ‘dark entity’ of the house, one that ‘partakes of subterranean forces’. For Bachelard, the underground is the one space the can never be rationalised: because it’s always in the dark, it’s a space that becomes a repository for the unconscious, a force that ‘cannot be civilised’ no matter how much we’d like it to be. Moreover, the unconscious itself is usually imagined in cryptic spatial terms – it’s the secret, concealed part of us, the bearer of hidden meanings.

The crypt under Oxford Castle, together with a re-enactment of the founding of the university

Restaurant in the crypt of St John’s church, Smith Square, London

Cryptic spaces have always been subject to attempts to rationalise their darkness. Crypts are often described as foundational spaces. Indeed, Canterbury’s crypt is said to be the foundation on which the present cathedral was built, while that under the Oxford castle is now quite literally cast as the space in which its world-famous university was founded, with monks offering the first clandestine teaching there over 900 years ago. Visualising the crypt as a ‘foundation’ fixes its otherwise obtuse meaning and transforms it into a mythic space, but one that is nevertheless rooted in its rationalisation. In present-day equivalents, many of London’s church crypts have now been converted into restaurants – St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Bow, St John’s in Smith Square, to name but a few. Here, the potent mystery of the crypt is reduced to simply a novel spatial experience – a new background to an everyday activity – but perhaps with the element of secrecy still drawing the illicit in the form of hushed, private conversations.

‘Sound II’ in the crypt of Winchester cathedral

Yet, despite the increasing rationalisation of cryptic spaces, they nevertheless have a stubborn hold on the imagination that resists this process. Oxford castle’s crypt is widely perceived as the most haunted space in the city, with regular ghost-hunting tours promising to reveal its occult presences that lie far beyond the rational and reasonable world above ground; while the crypt under Winchester cathedral contains another ghostly presence – not an apparition but Antony Gormley’s striking sculpture Sound II, a life-size cast of the artist’s body contemplating a bowl held in its hands. When the crypt floods, as it often does, the sculpture appears as if hovering over the deep, the figure longing for the bowl to be filled by the rising flood. It’s a simultaneously gentle and disturbing symbolic representation of the imaginative potency of the crypt that, even as it evades comprehension, nevertheless haunts the mind for a long time after it’s seen.








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